Social Anthropology and Rural Economic Development

By Ed Meyer

For more than three decades, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay far away from the divisive diatribes so typical of arguments regarding public lands and the environment. When I’ve been ambushed in a meeting and forced to listen to the well-practiced public lands rhetoric repeated for the thousandth time, an image comes to my mind. It’s an image of the Dugum Dani warriors from the New Guinea highlands that I recall from the University Utah where I was studying social anthropology.

Keep in mind that I was taking anthropology classes thirty years ago so my memories are blurred by time, but here’s how I remember films I watched back when you still had to wind film onto projectors. It seemed like the women did all the work in the Dugum Dani villages. They raised sweet potatoes and tended pigs while the men got ready to go to “war”.  Since the men didn’t wear anything except a “koteka” (look it up for yourself at because I’m not going there), preparations seemed to most involve a lot of chest thumping and a little face painting. However, in the late morning or early afternoon, the men would go to a canyon where they yelled at men from another tribe and shot arrows that never seemed to hit anything. The technical term for this is “ritual small-scale warfare and here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dugum Dani, you may want to visit  As an aside, the ritual battles I saw in college in 1972 have become much more serious as the primate Dugum Dani have come in contact with the outside world and now are being sold high powered rifles.

I’ve certainly circumnavigated around my point which is that pretty much everyone embroiled in the battle over public lands remind me of the Dugum Dani warriors mocking one another, insulting the “enemy”, rattling arrows and firing ineffective volleys at one another.  To me it has always seemed so wasteful and counterproductive. So I chose another route that focused directly on trying to help people at the community level.

(Pictured: Abraham Maslow)

But now I’m retired and want to propose something that was not politically appropriate when I was a state employee. Before I make my proposal, I want to go back to my anthropology training and dredge up from my ancient lessons the theories of a guy named Abraham Maslow. He proposed something now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation (I expect all of you sociology students are groaning about now). Mr. Maslow was a pretty boring guy so let me summarize how his concept relates to rural America and the public lands debacle.

Maslow said that people need to take care of a whole host of needs before they will focus on an area he called “self actualization”. In terms of rural America, you have to make sure you provide food and shelter for yourself and your family before you will be willing to consider more lofty goals like protecting the environment. So when you are forced to give up a job in a sawmill or a mine that pays a family-sustaining wage in exchange for turning bed sheets in a motel, you won’t be receptive to ideas like protecting wilderness areas. If you want be really bored, visit

So here, based on Maslow, is my idea and my challenge to the environmental community. Rural people will never embrace protection of the environment and tying up public lands until they have family sustaining jobs. So you can fight them until hell freezes over. You can keep filing lawsuits draining your budgets and those of people living in rural America or you can invest in an alternative strategy. If you don’t want rural people to continue their efforts to obtain family sustaining, natural resource-based jobs, then you need to find a way to substitute environmentally sensitive jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Think about it. Thousands of companies professing to be environmentally conscious are contributing to environmental movements. What if instead of doing this they invested in rural communities adjacent to public lands by providing “clean jobs”.  What this would entail is a willingness to sustain a loss for a few years as the new rural employees are trained and gain experience. In some cases, there might even be an ongoing loss since many rural communities are isolated, but the growth of information-based jobs should counterbalance the cost of isolation. It is my experience that, once a rural person’s family needs are addressed, they are more willing to consider environmental partnership to address mutual needs.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. Environmental organizations don’t sustain themselves by solving environmental problems. Rather, it’s in their interests to sustain problems for generations if possible.  But prove me wrong. If you have an idea about an environmentally clean company who wants to provide jobs next to sensitive public lands, call me in Kanab. My name is Ed Meyer and my number is in the phone book. Next month I’ll let you know how many calls I’ve received.


Call for Abstracts – Climate Change

The Western Rural Development Center is soliciting articles for its June 2011 issue of Rural Connections. The topic for this issue will be challenges and opportunities facing the rural West relative to climate change and climate change policies.

Abstracts Due: Friday, March 4, 2011

Click here for the details.

The EPA says, “The extent of climate change effects, and whether these effects prove harmful or beneficial, will vary by region, over time, and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to adapt to or cope with the change.”[i] The Center is interested in understanding challenges and opportunities facing the West’s rural communities as they relate to climate change. Furthermore, the Center wants to share this information with its stakeholders to increase awareness of the region’s activities and to build the capacity of Extension and communities by providing them with relevant and timely information.

The WRDC is not interested in arguments for or against climate change, rather the WRDC is interested in sharing with its stakeholders the research and community and economic development activities that are underway in the region to address currently changing climates and how these changes are bringing economic opportunities and/or challenges to the West’s rural communities.

The topic of challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West as they relate to climate change and climate change policy is broad in scope and allows for submissions from a wide range of sub-topics including but not limited to the following topics listed in no particular order of priority:

  • Climate change policies and how they are impacting business/job growth in the West
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Production
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Natural Resources
  • Impacts of Climate Change on National Security
  • Innovations in Climate Change Technologies Manufactured in Rural Communities

Click here to read and download the complete Call for Abstracts.

[i] US Environmental Protection Agency.  Climate Change – Health and Environmental Effects.  Retrieved February 3, 2011, from

Meet Steph: A PhD Candidate in Environmental Sociology

I have successfully avoided the blogging world for some time, until now that is.  It seemed as if all my fellow English majors from back in college had undertaken their own blogs, some of them overseeing multiple endeavors. In the meantime, I’d focused on writing of another sort – academic writing.  As a PhD candidate in Environmental Sociology at Utah State University, I write with regularity.  However, the end product is usually more of the papers-and-journal-articles variety – interesting (I hope) but also prone to, well, jargon and a certain amount of abstraction.  Now, at the generous invitation of the Western Rural Development Center, I’m able to join the blogging world and, for a little while every month, escape the world of specialized writing.  I hope you’ll join me!

I would like to think I’ve been invited to write this blog because Betsy, the WRDC’s creative heart, sees in me some grand writing talent.  More realistically, though, it’s because I’ve been a WRDC graduate intern/groupie for nearly half a decade (yikes!), spending many a summer day in the basement of the WRDC’s cute little office building.

This year marks the beginning of my fifth as a Graduate Intern for the WRDC.  Back when I was a wide-eyed, first-year Masters student, then-Director John C. Allen was kind enough to give me summer funding.  A few years later, I have done everything from interviewing green entrepreneurs, to answering phones and making copies, to compiling an enormous database of demographic information on every county in the West.

I know that working for the WRDC has enormously enriched my understanding of issues facing rural communities in the West.  I grew up in the Chicagoland area, where public lands don’t exist and one town flows into the next in a concrete maze.  While rural communities in the Midwest face many of the same issues as those in the West, the context is quite different, given the uniquely self-sufficient character and physical isolation of many western rural communities.  The WRDC provided me not only with employment but also with an opportunity to learn the ‘culture’ of the West and the issues of its rural communities.  Throughout this process, I have gotten a feel for our stakeholders and our mission at the WRDC, and I am excited for the opportunity to use this blog as a means to interact with all of you in a more relaxed fashion.

What will I focus on in the months to come?  As I mentioned above, I am a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Utah State University.  I completed my comprehensive exams last year, while also defending my dissertation proposal, and was lucky enough to receive a dissertation fellowship from the Rural Sociological Society.  Thus, I’ve been able to design and implement my own research project.  This means that I am currently in the throes of data collection and analysis, both a wonderfully enriching and incredibly frustrating process.

In a nutshell, I am examining political mobilization and general social impacts of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill outside of Nucla and Naturita, Colorado, a very beautiful and remote area in southwestern Colorado.  The mill, in the permitting stages now, will be the first built since the end of the Cold War, and it has understandably elicited a wide range of responses in the region.

As our nation reshapes its energy portfolio and weathers a recession, this mill represents a potential expansion of domestic nuclear energy as well as a potential source of much-needed local employment.  Along the way, I have gotten to know many folks in the area, most friendly but some deservedly skeptical, and I look forward to sharing those experiences and others with you as this year progresses.

You may also hear the occasional ramblings of the hiker, biker, and snowshoe-er that lives inside me and absolutely adores the vast, inspiring landscapes of the West.  My husband and I try to camp and take road trips as often as we can, so we’ve enjoyed the wet coasts and espresso huts of Oregon and Washington, the tall peaks of Colorado, the clear rolling rivers and forested expanses of Montana and Idaho, California’s colorful hamlets and cities, and the enchanting desert landscapes of southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  As a sociologist, I believe these travels make me a better student of rural life, and I hope to share snapshots of them with you in the months ahead.

On that note, I would love this blog to be interactive.  Dedicated Blog Reader, please let me know via comments here on the blog or via Facebook or even Twitter what you’d like to hear about – be it energy, camping, hiking, sociology, or what it’s like to be handed a chunk of uranium from a local you’re interviewing.  Enjoy the fall colors, and I will see you next month!

WRDC Board Members discuss Rural West

The WRDC’s Board of Directors are experts in their fields and share a passion and enthusiasm for advancing Rural America.
Watch their videos and hear them discussing some of the current challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West.

We encourage you to share these videos!

California Agriculture & Rural Communities
Dan Dooley, is the Senior VP of External Relations and the VP of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California. Mr. Dooley also serves on the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Dooley discusses current issues facing California’s agricultural and rural communities. Watch now.

The Rural West
Sally Maggard, is the National Program Leader for Regional Development with the National Institute of Food Agriculture at the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr. Maggard also serves as a liaison to the WRDC. Here she shares her views on the issues facing the West’s rural communities. Watch now.

Western Research Innovating Rural West
Mike Harrington, is the Executive Director of the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. Dr. Harrington also serves on the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Harrington discusses the LGU research activities currently underway in the West to enhance the quality of life for the region’s inhabitants. Watch now.

Increased Population can Lead to Rural Opportunities
Sheldon Jones, is the Vice President of the Farm Foundation and a member of the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Jones discusses the challenges facing our growing world and the impacts this growth has on our agricultural communities. Watch now.

The West: Home of Optimism
Kent Briggs, is the Executive Director of the Council of State Governments-WEST, and a member of the Western Rural Development Center’s Board of Directors. Here Briggs shares his views on the issues facing the rural West. Watch now.

A conversation: The first of many

Hello Friends of the WRDC! We hope this blog provides you with interesting opinions on the happenings within our region comprising the 13-Western states, 4-Pacific territories. More importantly, we hope you will join the discussion by posting your comments, retweeting, etc.

Keep an eye out for our Call2Blog. Coming soon the Call2Blog is a cool opportunity for you to apply to be a WRDC blogger for 12 months (or longer if you, and we, and our readers decide we want to keep hearing from you).

Yep. You read right. We will be asking you to be our bloggers! Why? Because we want you to share your expertise and views on the issues facing the West’s rural communities.

And why not? After all, you’re out there doing the work (agriculture production, teaching, conducting research, implementing programs) so who better to discuss these issues like agriculture production, drought, land management, electricity transmission, poverty reduction, community asset mapping, sustainable development, biofuels, pest management, economic development, and well, you get the idea!

So you got something to say? Think you could say it meaningfully once a month for the next 12 months? Then when it’s time, apply to our Call2Blog!

In the meantime, head over to our website: